22nd May 1998 at 01:00
For sceptics such as myself, content to shuffle around snail-like meatspace (Net-speak for non-cyberspace), there is a certain grim satisfaction in reading the latest couple of accounts of life online.

Melanie McGrath, in Hard, Soft amp; Wet: the digital generation comes of age (Flamingo pound;7.99) and John Seabrook, in Deeper: a two-year odyssey in cyberspace (Faber pound;6.99), chronicle extended surfs on the digital ether, and they come back with similar tales to tell.

Both authors are initial sceptics, though with self-confessed nerdish tendencies, and their journeys follow parallel trajectories. There is the initial excitement of getting hooked up, the disorientation experienced by a "newbie" (there's nothing a nettie likes more than a neologism), the exhilaration of feeling a whole world at one's fingertips - and then a gradual disillusionment, a realisation that the brave new cyberworld is not the techno-utopia that it is sometimes cracked up to be.

Seabrook's disillusionment is not as complete as McGrath's, perhaps because he homes in on WELL (Whole Earth Electronic Link), a virtual community co-ordinated in (where else?) northern California which has retained some radical idealism.

Ironically, Seabrook gains acceptance by organising the discussion group on books; surely a case of back to the future. Seabrook is a staff writer on the New Yorker, and his is the more literary of the two in style. His book also contains more information on the history of the Net. McGrath's is a more personal and impressionistic account, and takes in other aspects of "techno" youth culture. There is also more meatworld travel in it, as McGrath darts around to LA, Singapore and points between.

More scepticism in John Horgan's The End of Science: facing the limits of knowledge in the twilight of the scientific age (Abacus pound;8.99). Horgan's thesis is that a time is approaching when all the fundamental scientific questions that can be answered (humans, as Horgan points out, have an infinite capacity for dreaming up seemingly unanswerable questions) will have been answered. Thereafter it will be a question of dotting the i's and crossing the t's. There will be no more Newtons, Darwins or Einsteins. The period of scientific discovery that began in the 17th century will not continue forever but will exhaust itself.

Hardly surprisingly, The End of Science has met with scepticism from scientists themselves. It is true that this is not a science book, but a speculative book about science. Also, in the interviews with scientists and philosophers (Karl Popper, Stephen Jay Gould and Daniel Dennett, among others), Horgan frequently uses journalistic rhetorical tricks to skew the argument in his own favour. Nevertheless, this is an entertaining and accessible introduction to some of the questions at the cutting edge of science.

John Horgan's conclusion is that after the end of science may come a revival of religion. Perhaps we are already there. Buddhism is one of the big things at the moment - you can't move for movies and books about the Dalai Lama. Mary Craig's Kundun: a biography of the family of the Dalai Lama (Fount pound;7.99) shares its main title with Martin Scorsese's dreamy biopic, but is a very different animal.

Unlike Scorsese, Craig gives a full picture of the historical and political context, as well as of the personal tragedy of exile, making excellent use of interviews with the Dalai Lama's surviving siblings. One interesting point: Fount is an imprint of HarperCollins. An anti-China book that survived.

Adam Lively

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